They say that we are made
In the image of the Divine
I believe that
Most of the time.
These bodies of ours contain
A spark of holy fire
Creation never ending
Imagination running wild
With the possibility of grace.
But when I hurt
When the pain of living
Makes it hard to face
Then I don’t have to believe.
God aches and weeps with me
Staggering under the burden
Of holding onto love
When even the mountains
Are shuddering in despair
God, give me strength
Spin beside me as we journey
Through the emptiness of space
Lost among the stars
Until we find, at last
A warmer, brighter, sun.
An old poem of mine that popped up in my Facebook “memories” today…
Before our births
We bounced around inside our mothers,
That warm wet universe cushioned us from harm.
Flat on our backs we struggled to raise our heads,
Sit up, crawl, and finally we stood.
The playpen was so forgiving.
One step, two, and then we ran
Falling, we bounced up from the ground.
With our knees scraped raw
We did not worry.
The wind in our hair
Fast downhill on our first two- wheeler
Bouncing over the curbs,
We jumped into classes, jobs, marriages, and sorrows.
Our bones grow brittle
Until once more,
We bounce into the earth again
Safe inside our mother,
In a universe of stars.
Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? The song we just heard by the choir asks important questions. Would you offer a safe harbor to just about anyone who needed it? What does it mean to harbor someone? Do we always have to say yes when someone is seeking sanctuary? Is everyone really welcome at the table of this congregation? Do we want to open our doors really wide? What would that mean? How would it change us?
These are practical questions, but they are also spiritual ones. The practical ones are difficult enough, but the spiritual can be even harder.
Today is Transgender Remembrance Day. As was explained in the reading, it is a day when we are asked to remember those who have been murdered in the last year because of their real or perceived gender identity. We are going to do that now. It is important.
2017 has already seen at least 25 transgender people fatally shot or killed by other violent means just in the United states. The world-wide total is much larger. Most are people of color.
I will now read the names of a few of those precious souls. Please hold them in tender care, knowing that each name represents at least hundreds and probably thousands of others.
- Mesha Caldwell, 41,a black transgender woman from Canton, Mississippi, was found shot to death the evening of January 4.
- Sean Hake,23, a transgender man in Sharon, Pennsylvania, died after he was shot by police responding to a 911 call from his mother.
- Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, 28,an American Indian woman who identified as transgender and two-spirit, was found dead in her apartment in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
- JoJo Striker, 23,a transgender woman, was found killed in Toledo, Ohio, on February 8.
- Tiara Richmond, also known as Keke Collier,24, a transgender woman of color, was fatally shot in Chicago on the morning of February 21.
- Chyna Gibson, 31,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed in New Orleans on February 25.
- Ciara McElveen, 26,a transgender woman of color, was stabbed to death in New Orleans on February 27.
- Jaquarrius Holland, 18,was shot to death in Monroe, Louisiana, on February 19.
- Alphonza Watson,38, was shot and killed in Baltimore, Maryland, on March 22.
- Chay Reed,28, a transgender woman of color, was shot and killed on April 21 in Miami.
- Kenneth Bostick, 59, was found with severe injuries on a Manhattan sidewalk, he later died of his injuries.
- Sherrell Faulkner, 46,a transgender woman of color died on May 16, of injuries sustained during an attack on November 30, 2016 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
- Kenne McFadden, 27, was found in the San Antonio River on April 9. Police believe she was pushed into the river, which runs through downtown San Antonio.
- Kendra Marie Adams, 28,was found in a building that was under construction and had burns on her body on June 13.
- Ava Le’Ray Barrin, 17,was shot and killed in Athens, Georgia on June 25 during an altercation in an apartment parking lot.
- Ebony Morgan, 28, was shot multiple times in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early morning of July 2.
- TeeTee Dangerfield, 32,a Black transgender woman, was shot and killed on July 31 in Atlanta, Georgia.
- Gwynevere River Song,26, was shot and killed in Waxahachie, Texas, on August 12.
- KiwiHerring, 30, was killed during an altercation with police on August 22 during an altercation with her neighbor.
- Kashmire Nazier Redd, 28,was fatally stabbed by his partner on September 5.
- Derricka Banner, 26, was found shot to death in Charlotte, North Carolina on September 12.
- Scout Schultz, 21, was shot and killed by Georgia Tech campus police on September 16.
- Ally Steinfeld, 17,was stabbed to death in Missouri in early September.
- Stephanie Montez, 47, was brutally murdered near Robstown, Texas.
- Candace Towns, 30,a transgender woman who was found shot to death in Georgia.
May their spirits rest in love and in peace. Let us hold their memory in a brief time of silence.
Why did these individuals and so many others like them die such violent deaths? Did no one harbor them? Could no one, even those that loved them, provide enough protection?
One of the ugliest aspects of human social behavior is the tendency we sometimes have to treat people who are different in cruel and often violent ways.
I am not sure why that is, really. Maybe it is fear. People who are different can challenge our own identities, our sense of security, and our ideas about the way the world works. We like to divide the world into binaries: male and female, black and white, religious and secular, theist and atheist, us and them, and right and wrong.
People who identify as transgender challenge that simplistic and dualistic way of looking at the world simply by living their authentic lives. The world is more than black and white. There are all the colors of the rainbow in nature, and gender expression can be just as diverse. In many indigenous cultures, people who cross traditional gender boundaries are honored as being two-spirited and often are given roles of religious leadership.
In cultures with more rigid gender roles, in cultures where crossing the gender line can threaten the patriarchal power structure, such people are instead disparaged and abused. Ours is a patriarchal culture.
Things were slowly beginning to change for the better, but we are now in the midst of a serious backlash. Transgender people were attacked early with the president wanting to ban them from serving in the armed forces, but so many people with marginalized identities of all types are at increased risk by not only the current administration, but by the forces of hate, bigotry, and division that have always been with us, but have been given new life and energy. Nazis are marching in the streets of our cities, shouting the vile slogans of racism and anti-Semitism.
Will the candles we light be brighter than their torches? Will our love be enough to save us?
How can we live with the despair we feel when we faced with so many tragedies, day after day, after day? Our hearts are weary with listening to the long lists of those lost; we weep over the names and faces of the victims of violence and hate. So much is painful these days. How can we stand to live in a world with such horrifying and rampant gun violence, with the frightening impact of climate change which has made the storms and fires so much worse, or with the deep knowledge that sexual assault is woven into the fabric of our culture when virtually every woman alive is crying out, me too, me too?
Can we find a safe harbor for ourselves? Can we provide one for others?
What does it mean to harbor someone? Is it just giving physical shelter or is it more? I think it is a lot more. It is the spiritual promise we make when we affirm our first principle: to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.
Harboring is welcoming, really welcoming with open arms, hearts, and open doors. We say it often on Sunday mornings, when we welcome everyone with a whole laundry list of just who that welcome includes. Repeating that list is important because when some churches say “we welcome everybody” they only sort of mean it.
They welcome everybody who is willing to accept by faith the beliefs of that particular religion. Some even ask people to change who they are. We try to practice a more radical kind of welcome here. Yes, we have some rules. You can’t smoke during the service. If you go around screaming at other people, we will ask you to be quiet or leave. We expect people to be kind and respectful of other people. But smoking and screaming and being unkind to others are behaviors, and behaviors can be changed, and we are all works in progress. Part of the mission of a religious community is to help us learn to be our best selves.
Churches are sanctuaries, spiritual sanctuaries, but also legal ones. The state is not supposed to interfere with what happens in churches. That is part of the first amendment. I love the first amendment.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The first amendment is in trouble now. The free press is being dismissed as fake news, facts are optional, the truth is whatever serves the purpose of those with the power. 1984 has come and gone and is back again.
Offering sanctuary, harboring someone is always risky business.
Some of our states have passed laws that make it a crime to even give a ride to someone who is an undocumented immigrant. Need a ride home from church? Show me your green card.
The Unitarian Minister, Theodore Parker, is said to have written his sermons with a pistol beside him because he had fugitive slaves hidden in his cellar.
In Nazi Germany, if you harbored a Jew, you could be sent to a concentration camp where you could be tortured and killed.
Would you harbor me if you put your own life at risk to do so?
Not an easy question to answer, but it is one we should all be thinking about.
Even if we don’t risk death or imprisonment, really harboring someone is still risky business. What would happen to this community is we took the risk to create the kind of congregation that truly welcomed all? What would happen if we decentered the white middle-class culture that permeates almost all that we do here? What would happen if we actually welcomed Christians with the same warmth and care that we offer to those who have been hurt by Christianity?
I do believe there is hope, it is part of my faith to believe in hope. I have to keep singing, singing for all of the precious lives who need a sanctuary, who need a place to renew their spirits, a place to get the energy to go out and keep working for positive change. This community can be that kind of place, an open inclusive space, where different cultures, beliefs, and ways of being are respected, honored and celebrated. We are almost there, you have been working on it and do so much well. It will never be perfect, because nothing is ever perfect. But the stretching, the experimenting, the trying, the continual opening and reopening of our hearts and minds to a wider vision of a welcome table, that effort will help us create a beloved community that will be a true sanctuary for all who are seeking one.
Hold me, harbor me, I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Say it to yourself, say it to each other.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
Now say it now to someone you don’t know, someone who isn’t here, someone maybe that you may never meet. Say it to all the hurting searching souls.
Hold me, harbor me. I will hold you, I will harbor you.
500 years ago, on October 31, 1517 Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses on the door of a church, signaling the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Because of the printing press, invented around 1440, he was able to read the Bible for himself and he took different meanings from it than what had been the orthodox view. In 1531, Michael Servetus also read the Bible for himself and then published a pamphlet called the Errors of the Trinity and our Unitarian Faith was born.
The right of individuals to interpret sacred scripture for themselves, whether that scripture is the Bible or Doctor Seuss, is fundamental to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition. This is reaffirmed in our 4th principle of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
First, let me ask you a question, do you ever cry in church? A lot of people cry in church, and that is usually a good thing. Tears can be good, and in times of grief or disappointment, just letting them flow can be very healing. We cry when are hearts are touched, and our services should touch our hearts.
But people also cry in churches because their church is hurting them, telling them that they are somehow less than worthy, less than whole. They are told that God doesn’t love them just as they are if they are gay. They may also be told that they are less than worthy if they happen to be female. It is in the Bible after all.
This morning we are going to try and unpack some of the misunderstandings about the Bible. Much of what we have been told is simply wrong. This sermon today might help some of you dialogue with or resist anyone who might be beating you about the head and wounding your heart with their literal interpretations of scripture.
The word Gospel comes from the Greek word, euangélion, and means quite literally “good news.”
It does not mean absolute fact, something that can’t be questioned, although the word has taken on that meaning in our language today.
In ancient Greece when a city-state was at war, and soldiers were far away engaged in combat, the people at home worried, just as we do today when our sons and daughters are at risk in foreign lands. After a battle, a runner raced back home, hopefully to bring the word of victory, to spread the gospel, the good news. That is the earliest evidence we have of how the word gospel was used.
When the early Christians were writing in Greek, they used the same term with the same meaning because they believed that the message of Jesus, the message of a loving God, of hope for the poor and oppressed, was very good news indeed.
Now we all want good news to be true. There is nothing so upsetting as to think something wonderful has happened and to find out there was disaster instead.
You know that feeling when you have struggled to park in the last tiny spot on a crowded street and then while walking away, you discover a small sign that tells you it is street sweeping day? We want good news to be true. We want to park our cars, our lives, someplace good, and not have to move them again. We don’t want to be required to read the fine print.
So it is with the Bible. If you read the fine print, if you study it, you will find that while it may contain good news, and much wisdom, it is far from fact. It is not literal and to interpret that way is, dare I say it, fake news
My Old Testament professor in seminary, a delightfully droll Franciscan priest, was fond of saying that the Bible is not history, it is not science, and it should never be used as a club, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
The Bible, he said, is a collection of the stories of a people and their struggles to be in right relationship with the divine, with God. It is full of metaphor and full of inconsistencies. It wasn’t written down all at one time; and God didn’t dictate it.
Biblical scholars, using modern methods, have determined that the bible is in fact a collection of stories, many of which were originally oral traditions, and almost of which were edited and changed over time.
The word Bible actually means library and comes from the name of the town Býblos, a Phoenician port where papyrus was prepared. And there is not just one Bible, a fact that many Biblical literalists don’t know. The Hebrew Scriptures are a collection of 24 books in three divisions: the law (or Torah), the prophets, and the writings. The Protestant Old Testament contains all the same books, but arranges them differently in order to make theological points about Christianity. The Roman Catholic Old Testament is larger than the protestant version; containing 15 additional books also known as the apocrypha, which means literally “hidden away”. The Greek Orthodox Church includes even more, and the Ethiopian Church yet again more.
So, if someone tells you that they follow what is in the Bible, it would not be at all unreasonable to ask, “Which one?”
The official version of the bible and the books included in it is often referred to as the canon.
Most of the individual books have also been edited. Some are clearly combinations of different earlier versions. The Torah, what Christians call the Pentateuch, is composed of the first 5 books of the Hebrew Scripture: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Scholars have determined that there were originally as many as five separate and distinct written versions of the material in the Torah that were combined at a later time.
They are referred to as the J, D, E, and P versions; P is for priestly and the style is rather dry and formulaic. The D source is found mainly in Deuteronomy.
J and E refer to two different Hebrew names for God. Scholars are still arguing about which source came first and the actual number of different sources, but they are in full agreement that the Torah was not written by Moses.
Have you ever wondered why there are two versions of the creation story in Genesis? Genesis one describes creation as happening in seven days and God creating both man and woman in his image at the same time. It is in Genesis 2 that God takes a rib from Adam to create Eve.
From the story of the flood to the tales of Abraham and Sarah, from the parting of the Red Seas to the listing of the Ten Commandments, there are both repetitions and differences in what the Bible says. So, if someone tells you they believe what the Bible says, after they tell you which version, you might want to ask, which part of that version?
You also might want to ask them, if they say the Bible is the literal truth, if they think men really have one less rib than women. Did anyone else ever try to count their own ribs and those of an opposite gender friend or sibling? I did. It was very confusing. It also wasn’t particularly easy and I don’t remember even getting a firm number.
Pull out an anatomy textbook later, or ask your doctor if you still aren’t sure. We aren’t going to engage in rib counting this morning here in church.
If you want, I suppose you can do that later, in the privacy of your own homes.
The New Testament section of the Bible was created in a similar fashion. It is a collection of stories and letters about Jesus and the early Church, some of which are repeated and many of which are inconsistent with each other.
Most scholars agree that some of the letters attributed to Paul were written earlier than any of the actual Gospels. They agree that Mark was the first gospel written; at least of the ones included in the canon, and that the authors of Matthew and Luke had access to Mark when they wrote their versions of the life of Jesus. Many believe that they also had copies of another text, possibly older than Mark, which contained various sayings of Jesus. That document is referred to as “Q”.
There was much controversy in the early church over what writings should be included. There was a lot of very diverse material floating around for the first four centuries, as well as very different oral traditions. People argued about what should be included and what should be left out. Even as late as the protestant reformation Martin Luther argued that the book of James should not be included in the canon.
Some writings were lost for more than a thousand years, but scholars were aware of their existence because of historical records that made reference to them. Many of these texts were found in modern times.
You may have heard of the Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Judas, and the Gospel of Mary, from which David read a portion of earlier. Often referred to as the Gnostic Gospels, more than 52 ancient Christian writings were discovered in 1945 in Egypt.
These writings, that are still being studied by scholars, give us a lot of clues about the diversity of Christian belief in the earliest years.
So, when someone tells you women should be silent in church because it says that in the Bible maybe you might want to quote from the Gospel of Mary where Levi calls Peter hot headed because he does not want to believe what Mary is saying.
You might also ask them why Paul felt the need to tell women they should be quiet. Most likely they were speaking up and he wanted to silence them.
I haven’t even gone into the whole issue of translations, but it is pretty clear that Jesus didn’t speak King James English. He didn’t even speak Greek. Anyone who speaks more than one language knows very well that literal translations often result in distorted meanings.
When in a silly argument with someone who says that the Bible clearly condemns homosexuality, I like to quote Luke 17:34 from the King James Version. The verse reads, literally:
“I tell you, in that night there shall be two men in one bed; the one shall be taken, and the other shall be left.”
Now, when you interpret that verse literally it is pretty clear that at least half of the gay people go to heaven, isn’t it?
I don’t suggest that you leave here today and go out and start arguments with biblical literalists. But if it interests you, do some reading about biblical scholarship.
But what I most want to leave you with today are some questions. What is your holy text, and what good news does it contain?
Do you find meaning in scripture; Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist or perhaps another tradition? Do you find it in poetry, in nature, in connections with other people?
Each of us must find our own truth. We find it in our own lives and in the lives of others that we come to know. We find it in the world around us. It is helpful to read, to study, and to learn what others believe to be true. But in the end, we must each make our own peace with the meaning of our own lives, and our own peace with whatever we mean when we say the word God.
There is some gospel, some good news, however. We don’t have to do any of this alone. There are other souls around engaged in similar journeys. Maybe we can learn from one another. Maybe people can stop using sacred texts like the Bible to justify their own bias and bigotry.
Maybe other people can stop being afraid of what the Bible says and understand that it is not literal and is not meant to be a club to beat you about the head, but is instead a collection of stories told by people trying to understand their lives and the world they lived in.
Isn’t that what we all are trying to do?
Amen and Blessed Be.